Connectivity Innovation Is Key for Sustaining Long-Term Economic Growth in Africa

Author: Malik Saadi

Connectivity is becoming central to almost every aspect of our lives. It has radically changed our lifestyle, enhanced our productivity, transformed the way we work and do business, and reduced the digital divides between developed and developing countries. As a result, demand for telecommunication technologies has exploded, touching almost every node of the infrastructure from the long haul to access networks, such as fixed broadband.

MTN GlobalConnect is one particular company making a huge impact in connecting Africa to the rest of the world and stitching African countries together. It considers providing connectivity services to African citizens and enabling them to enjoy a modern digital life they deserve a moral responsibility, not just a business opportunity. MTN GlobalConnect has made strong headlines this year, thanks to its great achievements so far, connecting 28 countries in Africa and the Middle East to the global connectivity grid. Throughout its operations on the continent, the company has gained a deep understanding of the complex regulations in Africa and formed strong bonds with the different stakeholders in the region.

At the Ultra-Broadband Forum 2022 in Thailand, I had the pleasure of discussing with Mr. Mohammed Aliyu, Chief FiberCo Officer at MTN GlobalConnect, why connecting Africa with the most innovative technologies out there is essential for stimulating the continent’s economic growth and fostering its human capital?

Mr. Aliyu started the discussion by highlighting the unique role that GlobalConnect plays in bringing one of the most important missing pieces to digital Africa, which is connectivity. According to him, MTN GlobalConnect is at the forefront of connecting Africa, from subsea cables to cable landing stations, to major edge Points of Presence (POPs) for country-level connectivity. The company has invested in more than 15 subsea cables around both West and East Africa, covering the entire continent. It is also investing in major subsea cables connecting Africa to the other continents. Key to MTN GlobalConnect’s strategy in addressing Network Africa and building a single African connectivity backbone is ensuring reliable cross-border connectivity between African nations in order to reduce latency and time to connectivity at the edge of each African country. Mr. Aliyu likened MTN GlobalConnect vision to building fiber railways in Africa; capable of transporting Internet traffic from the cable landing stations into the land of Africa.

Despite the great advances that MTN GlobalConnect has made in connecting the continent, Mr. Aliyu believes the journey is long and still ongoing toward a fully connected Africa; enabling citizens to enjoy similar digital experiences as those offered in other parts of the world. Operating in Africa is particularly difficult because of the fragmented landscape of the continent, involving various countries with multiple regulations, cultures, and stakeholders. Aside from building a superior connectivity backbone using cutting-edge technologies, operating in Africa ultimately requires a well-measured approach to craft solutions that work for each African country. Only operators that are well versed in the culture of Africa, with a track record in building relationships with key stakeholders, including investors, regulators, and implementation partners, will be able to succeed in their mission to connect the continent. This is exactly where MTN is making a difference, given its long-standing and trusted operations on the continent.

Looking to the future, MTN GlobalConnect is investing in sea cable landing infrastructure in Africa. For example, MTN GlobalConnect is the only African player investing in 2Africa, an international initiative led by Meta aiming to lay down a high bandwidth submarine cable system across the coasts of Africa and the Middle East to interconnect the continent with Europe. The system is now under construction and is expected to be operational by 2024. Sea cable landings in Africa are not the only area where MTN is investing. The company is also investing in terrestrial optical fiber systems, supported by network interfaces leveraging up to 800 Gigabits per Second (Gbps) transmission rates capable of interconnecting Eastern and Western African countries using a single backbone. The main goals of MTN are to work with key infrastructure partners to leverage their cutting-edge technologies and to build a world-class and resilient network cable to connect the unconnected, accommodating the growing demand of capacity on the continent, and addressing the needs of end customers, be they hyperscalers, network operators, or the enterprise market, or connecting the growing number of edge data centers on the continent.

At the end of my conversation with Mr. Aliyu, I asked him if he could elaborate on any recommendations that he wished to share with MTN ecosystem partners, mainly regarding how to address the growth opportunity in Africa and what key technologies they should align to address MTN’s needs. He pointed out that Africa is probably the fastest-growing population in the world, increasing from 1 billion in 2018 to more than 2 billion in 2030. So, investing in a future-proof, resilient, high-capacity, and low-latency network is becoming a necessity to accommodate this growth and deliver value to end customers very quickly and in line with growing demand. Automation is another particular Key Performance Indicator (KPI) highlighted by Mr. Aliyu to realize near zero-touch networks and enable operators and service providers to reduce the operating costs related to their equipment.

So, to achieve the highlighted goals, it becomes incredibly important for operators like MTN to choose the right infrastructure partners that can support MTN’s journey to modernize connectivity in Africa and deliver on the objectives highlighted above. Not only should these partners provide best-in-class, commercially proven, and widely available solutions, but these partners must be able to scale and support their customers in implementing and maintaining this equipment in a timely fashion. They should partner with key suppliers that are able to help them lower operational costs and align with their network sustainability objectives.